24 Hour Swim Relay

The Venue: San Francisco's Aquatic Park. Photo by Jeff

I said no. I had negative interests in joining a 24-hour relay team. Why would I voluntarily make myself (more) sleep deprived and swim multiple legs in the dark cold San Francisco Bay in early February? After saying no, I realized I had to join the team. As part of my mid-life evolution, I’m committed to stepping outside my comfort zone and becoming comfortable being uncomfortable.

The relay rules were simple: each team must have a swimmer immersed at least ankle deep for the duration of the swim. The event would start at 9:00 a.m. Saturday and conclude 24 hours later. Only unsafe conditions like lighting, gale force winds, and severe winter storms would temporarily excuse athletes from being in the water. As the event approached, I monitored the forecast. The weather preceding the relay could not have been better - sunny days in the high 60s and low 70s. When Friday approached, the storms rolled in, the winds kicked up, and the temperatures dropped. Mother Nature had plans for us.

San Francisco's South End Rowing and Dolphin Clubs provided facilities for the event. We would swim at Aquatic Park, warm up in the South End’s sauna, and sleep in the Dolphin’s handball court. All I needed to bring were my swimsuit, cap, goggles, earplugs, eyeshade, sleeping bag, pillow, and air mattress. As I began to pack, I was reminded of youthful camping trips and weekend retreats. However, when I was younger, I never thought to bring earplugs and an eye shade.

24 Hour Relay - The Cove Chasers stand ready. Photo by Jeff

My team included my regular swim group, the Cove Chasers. I live 40 minutes from San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, located adjacent to Ghirardelli Square. We carpool frequently. Not only does carpooling have traffic and environmental benefits, but also provides us with extra time to connect, share stories, and laugh. We value our time riding together and always look forward to the 'carpool therapy.' There’s only one guiding principle with carpool therapy: what’s discussed in the carpool stays in the carpool. This particular ride to San Francisco did not disappoint!

We arrived at the South End, dropped our gear in the handball court, and prepared for the start. We had nine swimmers on our team and as well as back-up support as needed. Over the course of the next 24 hours, we divided the legs into 30 and 60-minute shifts, depending on the interest of each swimmer. I chose 30-minute shifts and was assigned start times of 2:30 p.m., 9:00 p.m., 2:30 a.m, and 7:30 a.m. We agreed to swim the last leg together at 8:30 a.m. 

Sleeping arrangements. I slept on the green mattress on the right. Photo by Laura

And so the relay began. A storm just passed, winds were light, and the water hovered at an unseasonably warm 55ºF. Swimmers from each team entered the water and started swimming. 

Since I had a few hours before my first leg, I had the chance to meet folks from around the country who flew in just for this event. Perhaps the appeal of immersing oneself in cold water outweighed the misery of spending even just a few days in arctic tundras like Wisconsin, Illinois, and Boston. Clearly, these folks had an unfair advantage given their environmental acclimation to cold.

Dock Duty checking in and out swimmers
As the day progressed, storms rolled in whipping up the wind and dumping sheets of rain. The maximum current also coincided with each of my swims. This pattern would repeat every time I got in the water - strong wind, rain, and fast moving waters. When the winds increased, the water became choppier and rougher.

I entered the water and began swimming. Before I knew it, I made it out to the open San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sat less than a mile away. Having swum to and from Alcatraz in all kind of conditions, from lake-like to stormy days like today, I knew I was safer in Aquatic Park's Cove. I completed my swim in the cove and headed back to the beach, tagging out, and then warming up in the sauna. First swim complete.

Lucy tags out to 'get dry' as I tag in to 'get wet'. Photo by Jeff
Sleep always eludes me. It teases me with fatigue, but never fulfills the promise of waking rested. My strategy included taking cat naps whenever possible. After the first swim, I entered the handball court, climbed in my sleeping bag, put on the darkness mask, inserted the earplugs, and nothing happened. Instead, I meditated and cleared my mind. As I left the court, one of my teammates had just woken from her 90-minute nap. Sometimes, life’s like that. You take what you can when you can get it. I felt good with the meditative time and called it a win.
Ghiradelli Square. Photo by Erin

Evening approached, darkness came, and Ghirardelli Square’s lights illuminated Aquatic Park. For safety, swimmers wore light sticks and blinky lights on their goggle straps. A kayaker roamed the course. My regular swim schedule includes several early morning swims each week before dawn. Entering the water at 9:00 p.m. was no different than entering in total darkness at 6:00 a.m. Perhaps the only difference this time was waiting on the beach in ankle deep water in the pounding rain, strong surf, and cold winds for my teammate to return so I could tag-in. Surprisingly, the cold didn’t bother me. Perhaps hypothermia set in early…

Lights on buoys illuminate the way. Photo by Erin
During this swim, I stayed in Aquatic Park's confines and swam two laps along the buoy line on the shore. Similar to my last swim, conditions were stormy. Surprisingly, the rain and wind did not create a challenge. When the air temperatures drop, the winds can be brutal each time arms exit the water during the strokes recovery phase. The air temperatures remained in the low 50s, while not balmy, certainly not chilling.

Like my last swim, I warmed in the sauna and then retreated to the handball court hoping to sleep a few hours. My body decided one restless hour of slumber would be all I needed before my next swim. I took what I could get and spent the next few hours eating pizza and chatting incoherently with other sleep-deprived swimmers. 

Just before my 2:30 a.m. swim began, the rains came but the winds died. A swimmer from Portland and I decided to head out into the open Bay to look at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz - both shimmering in their full glory. She had never seen these sights from the water in the middle of the night. Neither had I. Each time I look at the bridge and the Rock in the dark, my world comes into balance for just a few moments. We navigated the currents for a safe return to the beach and tagged out.

Once again, I returned to the handball court. I hoped to maximize the four hours available for more sleep. My body decided I only needed 2 hours. I took it, got up, made some oatmeal, drank some coffee, and likely had a few more incoherent conversations.

As I waited for my final shift the dawn broke, the winds returned, and the rains stopped. The water conditions remained washing machine-like. For my last leg, I swam with two other South End members. We decided to head out to the bay and watch the bridge. Just like in the middle of the night, the morning lights on the bridge put me at peace. We returned, tagged out, and went to warm in the saunas. 

Robin and I - seriously delirious and sleep deprived. Photo by Jeff
I had 25 minutes to warm sufficiently before the final 30-minute swim with all of my team members. I tried really hard to get warm. I concentrated, thought warm thoughts, and ignored the shaking limbs. No joy. I left the sauna shivering and returned to the beach hoping I could let my mind overtake the realities of my hypothermic body. I was too cold to swim with my team. As my teammates headed off for their victory lap, I stood waist deep in the 55ºF water drinking hot coffee and chatting with other swimmers. Initially, I shivered so much, I spilled my hot drink. After I refilled my cup and stood in the water, my body stopped shaking and my teammates returned. We rejoiced in our awesome accomplishment and likely chest thumped, high fived, and hugged each other.   

Cove Chasers! The entire pod joined in for the final swim!

As I thought back about the relay, being sleep deprived made it hard to separate reality from actual events. I have vague recollections. Perhaps these events or conversations occurred, perhaps they did not, I can’t say for sure:
  • Sitting on the dock in wind-whipped conditions recording swimmers entering and leaving the water
  • Dancing on a strippers pole (not me of course, I was merely an observer)
  • Eating sugary foods and liking them
  • Being vibrated awake by the people snoring next to me in the handball courts
While the events just listed may or may not be true, I am certain about one thing. I’m grateful to be part of the amazingly supportive open water swimming community. While we come from different places and have different ambitions, we support and help each other achieve our individual and group goals.

Big shoutout and thank you to Suzie Dodds for creating and running the 24-hour relay! Photo by Jeff


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